Name: Ross Harper
Current release: Ross Harper's Tower of Light, the second instalment in the Ambient Girl cycle, is out October 8th.
Recommendations: Book: If Women Rose Rooted, A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging by Sharon Blackie
Music: The Prophet by C J Bolland
If you enjoyed this interview with Ross Harper and would like to find out more about him and his work, visit his homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud. Finally, The Ambient Girl series has its own dedicated website.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started producing music in 2002. My early influences were the 90s London party scene, everything from hard house, to techno, to deep house, to vocal house, to garage, to drum and bass, to hard trance to psychedelic trance.
I had spent time dancing to Laurent Garnier playing 6 hour sets at The End, and Jeff Mills playing 30 records in 1 hour at LOST, and then a whole shed load of psychedelic techno and trance at parties like Escape From Sampsara and Return To The Source (look these parties and venues up on Google – wow! What a history 90s London has), old skool raves, drum & bass raves, intimate garage clubs, raves at Bagleys warehouses in Kings Cross, DJ Bone and Marshall Jefferson at The Complex in Islington, the list is endless. Myself and my friends were the “raver kids with glow sticks and glitter on our faces”, there were even parties called Acid Bath where LSD tabs were distributed and hidden all over the club for free, ha ha! That was London in the 90s.
And you know, what drew me in? Before rave I loved the heavy pcychedelic 60s “free love” revolution with music like The Doors and Led Zeppelin, I knew something cool had happened in the 1960s and I felt connected to it through listening to this music. I even remembered sitting in a circle once, we were all stoned, holding hands chanting, “back to the 60s, back to the 60s”, ha ha! Then when the 1990s rave scene exploded in London, I was like “wow!”, now I am living my own revolution, the London parties in the 90s were all night Thursday, all night Friday, all night Saturday and then all day Sunday.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Yes, I agree with this to some extent. I took a very “formal” route in my production, and studied 5 years at music production college, even early on, my productions were supported by Laurent Garnier and Martin L Gore of Depeche Mode. But I felt kind of trapped by the scene back then, I didn’t feel ready to embark on a DJ or live career, I didn’t feel my production process was refinded enough, I seriously lacked self confidence, despite these “big names” supporting me.
I was solidly record shopping every week all the way up to 2012. I was also mastering a lot of output on my label City Wall Records. But around 2012 I made the decision to stop buying other people's music and “detach” completely from “the scene”, other than still A&Ring for my label and doing the mastering. And I went totally “underground” and just focussed deeply on production, reading about new software, exploring new systems of working, trying new technologies.
Eventually after about 3 years of experimenting I started to find a “system” that worked for me, that allowed me to flow. This led to many, many productions, a huge body of unreleased work, some of it very obscure, some of it very religious, based on scriptures, some of it just straight house and techno, this was a very dark and intense time for me, a time of almost complete introversion.
Then in November 2018 another massive shift happened in me and I knew it was time to start sharing what I have been working on, and also start producing a whole new series of works. These are less like, “machine music”, and more like “love poems”. This is the Ambient Girl series, of which Tower of Light is the second album in that series.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Well, I’ve touched on this already. I am a deeply religious person, I have experienced certain things in life, seen certain things, and met certain people, all this has led me to invest heavily in seeking the divine, this became part of the introverted journey I mentioned before.
I think from a modern Western point of view, possible this is difficult to understand, so I would say a better way to think about me, would be to place me in the same bracket as a mystic. Mysticism runs in my family on my mother’s side, as does some sort of Christian faith. So I guess the right way of describing me would be a Christian Mystic, but people also call be a Bhuddist and a shaman.
But my intention when I write my music is to connect the music to my spirit, I guess to “animate” my spirit through the music. It is a very selfish and at the same time soulful exercise. Essentially I am simply writing music for my own satisfaction, and if someone else enjoys it, great!
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Oh, that’s easy to answer. In the beginning it would take me 3 months to write a track and I was never happy with it. Then a friend of mine, who worked in engineering, told me about the “curve of productivity”. Essentially this is a principle used in project management whereby productivity is mapped against time invested - it was found that the curve is exponential. So up until about 70% there is equal reward for time invested, but then after 70% you must invest more and more time for less and less reward.
A light bulb went on in my mind, I realised this was just like my production work, as a natural perfectionist I would invest more and more time trying to fine tune a project to the Nth degree but never really feeling 100% happy with it. So I learnt to be far more disciplined in time management for productions and just allowing myself to have a certain amount of time on a track and then moving on.
And you know in doing so, I found I create far more works, and I was happier with the results in general, and sometimes, just sometimes, I would simply “stumbling across” something I was really, really happy with.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Oh, this is easy too! First I used hardware samplers and synthesisers, even including multitrack tapes and DAT tapes. But as soon as technology allowed me to just use software, I was straight onto that. Same as DJing, as soon as I found Beatport, I sold my decks and most of my vinyl (I actually destroyed an entire vinyl collection too once, but that is another story). And then in terms of production, I was totally “in the box” and all the tracks of mine that have been supported by A-list DJs have all been produced 100% on software.
But then something really interesting happened in around 2013. I had been following the touchscreen music production technology on iPads and iPhones and I just knew I wanted be able to “touch the music”, so I embarked on this “next phase”. But I hated Apple, I hated how they were so exclusive and expensive. I hated the way they didn’t let other developers cross into their platform. I was a free radical and I hated how insular they were. But the problem was, no other platform other than iPhone and iPads were really developing portable products that would allow me to “touch the music”. Actually I tried almost everything to avoid Apple, I tried Android devices, I tried Windows phones, but in the end in 2014 I started working on an iPad mini, then I linked it with an iPhone, then an iMac, and in the end I had and still have this incredible set up where I can produce music everywhere I go and all the devices communicate via iCloud so I can pick up the same project wherever I am, at my home studio on my iMac, or in the park, or on a mountain, all without ever plugging in a single cable.
So I kind of sum up my relationship with Apple like an “arranged marriage”. It was not something I wanted, but now it has happened, it is a very practical and actually quite wonderful arrangement.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
So Apple provided the hardware, and I use various different software instruments, drum machines etc. But, the program that “ties it all together” is a super simple and very intuitive sequencing package called Gadget by KORG.
Basically, these software designers in Japan, the people behind Gadget, for me they have created something that is 20 years ahead of its time. Reason, Ableton, Cubase, Pro Tools, they are all 20 years behind what KORG are doing. They are all still “stuck in the studio”, I mean some of them have invested a little bit in mobile music making, but I just sit here and laugh at them, like what are they doing? Mobile technology is here, technology that allows you to take your studio wherever you want in the entire world. Yet, 99% of the major music software house are developing software that can really only be used in a boring old studio.
OK, I hear you, a lot of it can work on a laptop, even a touch screen laptop, but actually, that is all very cumbersome and clunky compared to working on an iPad and iPhone, which is a fluid and beautiful experience, so KORG Gadget, that is a lot of fun. But limiting too, nothing too fancy can happen within that space, so it does have it’s limitations, I accept that, but limitations are beautiful too.